“People leave eventually. We’ve spent enough on him” the wife of a man drifting between life and death eventually concedes in Shen Lianlian’s indie drama Drifted in Life (流水无尽, liúshuǐ wújìn). In the modern China it seems everything has a price, not least a human life, but more than that it has a debt which must be satisfied at all costs. This is something with which the disparate members of a small family beset by lingering tragedy are each faced as they try to negotiate new paths forward while bound by ancient loyalties and traditions. 

This is certainly true for Keyu whose parents weren’t even going to call him when his grandfather is left in critical condition after a bathhouse accident lest they disrupt his working life. According to the incredibly offhand and somewhat insensitive doctors Renkai’s case is hopeless, his spine is severed at such a point that he has lost connection with his lower body and almost certainly will not be able to breathe without a ventilator. The family start planning the funeral on the car ride home, but the grandmother finds it impossible to let her husband go insisting that they leave him in the hospital just in case a miracle may happen while the rest of the family do what they can to sort out the bills, the originally unsympathetic doctor eventually warming to them in their devotion and agreeing to use an expensive drug to alleviate Renkai’s symptoms while reminding the grandmother that he will not recover.  

Kebo, Keyu’s bother, becomes indignant and enraged taking it out on the owner of the bathhouse for his apparently lax safety standards only for him to justify himself that he’s only a “small business” an excuse that becomes a refrain justifying commercial entities’ exploitation of employees and avoidance of complying with regulations. Keyu too is worried about “restructuring” at his company, while his wife’s is constantly laying people off and she fears for her own job while dealing with a temperamental diva artist who accuses her of being a sellout only interested in making money out of him. Meanwhile he ends up crushed between two conflicting loyalties seeking to make use of his relationship with an important client tasked by both the company that he works for and a desperate childhood friend with a “small business” of his own. Both Keyu and his wife opt for a kind of escape, he by betraying his company to put his friend forward for the contract and she starting a side hustle with the artist that seems like it will end up being more trouble than it’s worth but each of them wind up betrayed by their own choices. 

And then there’s the bad example their working culture seems to have been setting for their small daughter Weiwei who takes her new managerial responsibilities too seriously when made a monitor at kindergarten apparently hitting another child while collecting homework. Kebo meanwhile is also filled with resentment plunging his family, including his pregnant girlfriend to whom he is not yet technically married it seems for financial reasons, into even more debt after getting arrested for attacking the bathhouse owner and facing a lengthy sentence while his father ironically does something similar by getting into an altercation with a neighbouring stall owner after deciding to resume his butchery business to help pay grandpa’s medical bills. The matter is only resolved thanks to a neighbour who has a connection in the local police pressuring the bath house owner to back down and agree to a settlement out of court. 

Grandpa’s life becomes accidentally commodified as the family tot up how much it’s costing them to keep him in the hospital, even grandma eventually conceding that he has very little quality of life while coming to terms with her grief almost as if she were satisfying herself that they’d done “enough” to fulfil their obligation to him at least in monetary terms. “What’s the point of living like that?” Weiwei had tried to ask her dad, wondering why they’re keeping her grandfather alive while he drifts between life and death unable to communicate though she might as well be taking about herself or anyone else caught between the contradictions of the modern China and looking for release from its purgatorial grip. 

Drifted in Life streamed as part of Odyssey: a Chinese Cinema Season.

Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)

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